More than 25 years ago I discovered the musty, kilt-wearing charm of Scotland’s Drovers Inn with the Glasgow University Mountaineering Club on our way back from a weekend of hiking in the Highland’s Glen Coe. When I booked our family rooms there on a recent trip to Scotland, I was amazed to see that the owners had completely renovated the formerly dust-covered rooms to create a sense of luxury while losing none of its 300-year-old allure.
There is always a danger in revisiting former destinations and plunging back into the nostalgic haze of old memories and experiences. Sometimes, what made something perfect was the place, the time, the people, and a host of subjective variables that can’t simply be recreated.
Drovers Inn: A Highlands Discovery
My first visit to the Drovers Inn was just such a moment. In the fall of 1990, I was beginning my senior year at Duke University as a Public Policy Studies major. The program offered the chance to study abroad at Glasgow University for a semester, an opportunity that was too tempting to pass up for someone like me who had never gone beyond the frontiers of the United States.
Scotland may not be the world’s most exotic destination, but I was still overwhelmed by the experience of being a foreigner for the first time. A challenge heightened by the intense brogues spoken by Glaswegians, so thick that even the BBC at the time would broadcast Glasgow-based TV shows with subtitles for the rest of Britain. Somehow, though, amid the chaos of trying to find my bearings, I had the good sense to sign up for the student-run Glasgow University Mountaineering Club. (Their motto: “Stick with GUM!”). Every couple of weekends, they organized outings throughout the Highlands and Grampians. The Grampians were considered the somewhat weaker, softer cousins of the Highlands by the club, a place where English royals vacation. But still, mountains are better than no mountains. And all I had to do was show up with my backpack and proper hiking attire to experience a wonderland of mountains and countryside.
The weekend we spent hiking through Glen Coe was rhapsodic, easily one of the most beautiful places I’d ever visited. On the way back, just before we reached the northern end of Loch Lomond, the group pulled into the parking lot of the Drovers Inn for dinner. The stone building sat alone among a backdrop of rolling hills, grassland, and a small creek. As we climbed out of the van, we were suddenly being chased by peacocks, who were apparently kept on hand as a kind of Scottish dog guard. The squawking and the uncertainty of just how fierce an animal the peacocks is (“Has anyone every been killed by a peacock?” is one thought the flits their your head) was enough motivation to rush immediately inside.
The Drovers Inn claims to be Britain’s oldest pub, established in 1705, a claim that could very well be true and certainly one that everyone who passes through the doors wants to believe. Supposedly, characters such as Rob Roy frequented the joint, and it also proudly hints that it may be haunted by the ghosts of long-forgotten Scotsmen.
Stepping inside, I was immediately surrounded by a menagerie of dusty stuffed animals, most prominently a large bear. But the walls, shelves, and hallways were packed with a variety of animals that would have made a taxidermist’s heart flutter had they not been so covered with dirt and so musty.
From this auspicious start, we made our way to the bar to examine the menu and get drinks. Naturally, the bar was manned by kilt-wearing men. The menu was beyond basic: toasted cheese sandwiches or toasted cheese sandwiches. The bar was more promising with an array of single-malt whiskies hanging upside down in their dispensers which required just a push of a small glass against the bottom to distribute the perfect dram.
Since that time, single-malt whisky has become a far greater international phenomenon. But for me, it remains something far more specific. Coming down off a damp, cold, foggy mountain after a day of hillwalking, the taste of the first sip of whisky as it hits the back of your throat and then your chest provides a reinvigorating sensation that comes with a realization that this is the perfect drink for just this moment. Drinking whisky at any other place, at any other time, has always been wonderful, yet never so satisfying.
After countless cheese sandwiches and beers just to be safe, we went upstairs to explore the rooms. Dust seemed to be the unifying theme up here, along with dilapidated, rustic if one wanted to be kind, beds that seemed to have something on top that suggested a mattress, drapes that were threadbare. In short, one could theoretically pass a night here, and it might be preferable to say sleeping in the rain, but it slipped from cozy into something less inviting.
Still, as an American abroad, it all seemed so…Scottish. As I paid the tab and exited past the frightening stuffed bear, I had the feeling of having that rare experience that locals typically keep to themselves. And in the years to come, when friends would announce trips to the Highlands and as for tips, the Drovers Inn was on the list of things that I told them they simply must stop and see.
A Loch Lomond Return
Several decades later, with our family living in France, it was my turn to plan a West Highlands trip. My wife had been invited to speak at a university in Glasgow. So we decided that I would fly up with the kids and meet up when it was over, rent a car, and journey north. For me, the first leg would turn around a visit to The Drovers Inn. We would hike a bit around Loch Lomond, stop at the Drovers for a night and a meal, and then be on our way in the morning.
Having booked rooms in advance, and scoured the Drover’s website for information, I already knew that the inn awaiting us had changed considerably in those three decades. Not suprisingly, the owners had renovated the rooms in recent years. Perhaps renovate is too mild. They transformed the rooms. One may not mistake the Drovers Inn for a Club Med 5-star spa, but in their own way, the owners had even introduced a touch of luxury.
Gone were those dusty, mildewy rooms. Now, among the 15 rooms, there was one with a jacuzzi bath in it. (Price range: £100 to £130 depending on time of year, and including breakfast.)
The other rooms all offered tastefully, but decidedly Scottish, mixes of tartan floors, antique furniture, and oil paintings.
Alas, being poor planners, the better rooms were all booked for the night we were going to spend there. So we eventually opted for two of the Standard Rooms for our party of 5. Total cost for one night for two rooms: £170.
Despite the modernizing and renovation, the Drovers had not lost a bit of its appeal and mystery. The stuffed animals seemed to be all present, and cleaned up. The walls and shalls were still stuffed with various antiquities and oddities. Even the bear was still there to great us.
Though when I asked the staff if there were still peacocks, they gave me looks that made it clear they thought either I was trying to pull of some terribly awkward joke, or I was slightly out of my mind.
A Taste Of New Scotland
If that wasn’t all staggering enough, dinner would deliver another round surprises. The restaurant had been transformed. Toasted cheese sandwiches? Try burgers, an array of hipster goat cheese salads, poached salmon, vennison dishes, and more traditional faire with an gourmet attitude such as haggis. Personally, I have eaten haggis. Once. Enough said.
But goodness, there was an even a veggie burger! In Scotland, you say? Why yes. It was certainly something we saw across a trip that would take us from Glasgow to the Isle of Skye. Scotland’s eating seen has changed radically since the days when the only think I could seem to find involved deep frying something beyond recognition.
For our dinner, I went with the steak pie:
The kids opted for burgers:
And my wife ordered the fish and chips, traditional but still pretty upscale:
Accompanied with a few pints of beer, we were feeling quite content and well-nourished. Afterwards, we headed in the bar for one last drink and to just sit and appreciate the ambiance. Was the same magic there as three decades before? It’s hard to say, exactly. But it was joyful afternoon and evening, warm and welcoming in ways that were similar and different. Plus, the contentment that comes with sharing a deeply-held memory with family, if it will never have the same resonance for them.
Off To The Highlands
Waking up after a cozy sleep, we headed down to enjoy breakfast. Eggs, sausage, beans, all very U.K. We checked out, having been there less than 24 hours, unfortunately, but enough for this go around. Before hitting the road, we decided to take a small hike around the inn. This is not the most spectacular scenery that has Scotland has to offer. That lay ahead for us as we would make our say further up into the Highlands and eventually the Isle of Skye.
But for last glimpses, the north end of Loch Lomond is a good one to have before a drive of any duration.